News Release
February 5, 2014

Some Patients Receive Unnecessary Prioritization for Liver Transplantation, Penn Medicine Study Finds

Findings Could Influence Process for Allocation of Scarce Organ Resources

PHILADELPHIA — Patients waiting for liver transplants who develop hepatopulmonary syndrome (HPS), a lung disorder associated with end-stage liver disease, are eligible to move up on the wait list. In a new paper published in Gastroenterology, however, Penn Medicine researchers argue the so-called “exception points” given to these patients award some HPS patients unnecessary priority over others on the list, which includes about 17,000 patients.

The current U.S. transplant allocation system prioritizes patients based on medical urgency using the Model for End Stage Liver Disease (MELD) score, which takes into account the expected three-month survival due to end-stage liver disease, but does not consider other, unrelated medical complications.  As a result, a system that allows wait-list candidates with certain conditions, HPS among them, to be eligible for exception points to increase their waitlist priority has been developed.

“To examine the impact of HPS MELD exception points on outcomes, we examined the relationship between patients’ blood oxygen levels and outcomes in a national cohort of patients who received HPS exception points, and compared survival in HPS vs. non-HPS patients,” says David Goldberg, MD, MSCE, instructor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania and lead author on the study.

HPS is found in approximately 20 percent of patients awaiting liver transplant and is associated with a worse health-related quality of life. The condition is known to double the risk of death among patients evaluated for liver transplantation. 

The Penn researchers looked at data from February 2002, the date the exception point program commenced, to December 2012.  During this time, 973 patients on the liver transplant list received HPS exception points. While post-transplant survival was similar in HPS vs. non-HPS patients, post-transplant survival in HPS patients varied based on the severity of pre-transplant oxygen saturation levels. 

The team found that patients with the poorest oxygen saturation levels (lower than 44 mm Hg) had a significantly lower three-year post-transplant patient survival rate. 

Comparatively, significantly more non-HPS waitlisted patients, who did not receive exception points, died on the waitlist or within 90 days of waitlist removal, while a great proportion of HPS waitlist candidates were transplanted (73 percent vs. 43 percent).  In addition, the study showed that only 49 percent of HPS transplant recipients had clear evidence of clinical indications for transplantation aside from HPS, as compared with 89 percent of non-HPS transplant recipients.

The findings refute recent reports and demonstrate an association between pre-transplant oxygen levels and post-transplant mortality, suggesting that the criteria for doling out exception points be adjusted based on patients’ oxygenation, and suggesting an over-prioritization of all HPS patients in the current system.

This study represents the largest analysis of liver transplant waitlist candidates with HPS to date.

“These data, we hope, can provide some guidance to UNOS, as the exception point policy comes under revision,” says Goldberg.  “As organs are a scarce resource, we want to make it easier for the patients in the most urgent need to be prioritized as such, according to evidence-based criteria.”

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Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 17 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $392 million awarded in the 2013 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania -- recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; Chester County Hospital; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2013, Penn Medicine provided $814 million to benefit our community.

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